Reporting Pat Kessler
ST. PAUL (WCCO) – Minnesota Democrats are accusing Republicans of using state staff and equipment for political benefit.
If you attended a Republican precinct caucus last week, you might have been handed a pamphlet by your state legislator. What you might not have known, however, is that you paid for it.
The pamphlets were printed for 13 Republican Senators to pass out at their precinct caucuses last week — designed and copied at taxpayer expense by Senate staffers.
Republican leaders say there’s nothing wrong with it.
“These were handed out to our constituents. I don’t personally see any problem in it,” said Senate Majority leader David Senjem.
Senjem says Senate lawyers reviewed the material. It was approved even though it includes the political logo of the Senate Republicans, thanks voters for joining the Republicans and praises the Republican majority for its work on matters ranging from passing the gay marriage amendment to credit for the budget surplus.
“In my mind, that was a constituent piece and they are constituents handing them out wherever it might be,” said Senjem. “If it is constituents’ piece, generally speaking, non-partisan, as far as I know. I looked at mine, it was pretty bland.”
The 13 senators who requested the caucus material ordered as few as 75, and as many as 600 pamphlets each, side-by-side with legislative bills.
Democrats, however, say that’s illegal.
“I believe that all 13 members of the senate who did it, I believe, have broken the law,” said Senate Minority leader Tom Bakk.
Bakk says Democrats ship out all political printing, and pay for it with campaign funds. He says this material cannot be mistaken for anything other than politics.
“I don’t wanna accuse them of an abuse of power, but it feels like it — like the rules don’t apply to us,” Bakk said.
Senate Republicans say they relied on the legal opinion of the Senate’s lead attorney.
But in a memo to Republican leaders, the attorney says the pamphlets are not illegal because they “express appreciation” for joining the Republican caucus, but they do not “compel political activity.”
Below is the memo in full:
You have asked for information about the legislative update materials that were provided by certain members of the Senate to people who attended caucuses in their districts. I am providing this information to you in coordination with, and on behalf of the various legislative staff you included in your email request.
The attached table indicates which members requested copies of legislative updates, how many copies were provided, and the total cost to the Senate budget.
Senate Counsel Tom Bottern was asked to review a “legislative update” distributed on behalf of Senator Gerlach and to provide a verbal opinion whether the document complied with Senate policies. The Gerlach document complies with the requirements of Senate policy 1.45, which contains the Senate’s campaign activity policy. That policy defines certain forms of “campaign activity” that are prohibited, including “soliciting contributions to a political committee or political fund; recordkeeping contribution receipts;….” Nothing in the Senator Gerlach “legislative update” document fits within that definition of “campaign activity”. The policy also provides a definition of activities that are not “campaign activity” that includes “legislative reports,” which can reasonably be read to include a document like Senator Gerlach’s “legislative update.”
The email further inquires why the legislative update document does not violate Minnesota Statutes, section 211B.09, which prohibits using “official authority or influence to compel a person to apply for membership in or a become a member of a political organization, to pay or promise to pay a political contribution, or to take part in political activity.” Senator Gerlach’s legislative update includes a statement that says “Thank you for joining this Republican caucus!” and another statement that says “We appreciate your involvement, and hope you will keep in touch!” Nothing in either one of these statements can be read to compel membership in a political organization or to compel political activity. The statements do express appreciation for involvement in the caucuses, but that is a different matter from using official influence to compel political activity.
Democrats do send out a lot of similar stuff, but, they argue, not for election nights.